GUITAR HERO LIVE Takes A Big Step Forward, Several Small Ones Backward

When GUITAR HERO LIVE got a much-anticipated preview of its now-ongoing comeback tour early this past summer at E3, it still seemed almost unthinkable that any game could breathe some vigorous life back into the once-terminally saturated rhythm gaming genre. As it turns out, even in the face of some cringeworthy shortcomings in presentation and the egregious dawn of microtransactions, it still at least beats the sweet bejeezus out of Harmonix’s fumbling and embarrassing ROCK BAND 4.

Well, just to get the obvious out of the way upfront, the presentation is rooted on incorporated footage of live crowds whose takes on your shredding range from overacted “Shall we slay another goat for you, God of Rock?” to “Your music is bad and you should feel bad” with absolutely nothing in between. Really. What’s worse, the fantasy of wooing thousands under your thrall with your playing is shattered and trampled by hilariously bad acting and mugging, from the forced-to-watch concert intros and horrible costumes to the constant canned reactions. Welcome to the first of GUITAR HERO LIVE’s two separate playing experiences, Live. THIS IS SPINAL TAP, this ain’t.

Thankfully for players who never got the hang of the classic five-button layout, the swap on the guitar to placing two buttons side-by-side next to the first three frets may save newbies from the reality that nailing the vast majority of a song won’t save you from the corny boos if you botch the outro. The game employs some tricky, inventive chord patterning thanks to the new two-rows-of-three configuration and revamped hammer-on/pull-off variants, and Lord, is it blissful relief from the monotonous old gameplay.

It does come with the drawbacks that some songs display similar sounds and techniques just differently enough to throw even veteran players with great hand-ear-eye coordination and intuition. It doesn’t help either that most of the track list just doesn’t feel at home in a GUITAR HERO game, despite tantalizing selections of artists. Still not really sure what Skrillex and Eminem are doing in an ax-oriented game, but….eh, OK?

Guitar Hero TV is just about exactly what it sounds like: 200-plus official music videos mostly from the past five years or so of Top 40 mainstays alongside Weezer, the Clash, Pantera, and other more six-string-appropriate artists. Enter the microtransactions. Unlocking new songs costs Play, an in-game currency that costs $2.50 per 10-pack or $6 for 24 hours of limitless plays – that is, if you’d rather not just earn you plays slumming through the vintage-MTV-looking two free GHTV “Channels” of ongoing pre-programmed streams of videos you can jam along with at any time.

Your money or your patience – your pick. Unless you make it your mission to hunt it down, you’ll play a song once and forget about it. GUITAR HERO LIVE doles out some free plays every now and again out of gratitude just for playing, but nothing permanently unlocks any of the gated songs.

Unfortunately, GUITAR HERO LIVE still feels bare, despite the re-imagined mechanics. For some reason, there is no practice mode to acclimate new and old players, all of them now starting on a level playing field, to the touched-up controls. There’s only a mandatory, minimal tutorial to get across the nuts and bolts. Omitting the drum and bass parts is another disappointment entirely, even if another guitar or a plugged-in mic still adds new dimensions to the party-game fun, but worst of all? No selecting from all of the on-disc tracks in Quickplay without first running through single-player sets and no taking on the campaign alongside friends.

There’s a lot of promising headway here, but we’re hoping that we’ll one day look back on this reunion with GUITAR HERO like George Carlin’s Rufus at the end of BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, wince, and just admit, “They do get better.”

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